[Here are some excerpts and expanded ideas from the talk I made on Saturday, October 24 at The Power of A Woman Symposium in Fargo, North Dakota.]
I was in college when I had an exorcism performed on me. No I wasn't having trouble levitating at night, my head wasn't prone to spinning around in circles-- the only foaming at the mouth was actually just a little drool over a few cute guys--no I had enrolled in some women studies courses and started listening to Ani DiFranco.
This was obviously pretty threatening to the boys who ran the Bible Study that met on my college campus and when they heard the rumors they asked me to stay after, and they asked to pray for me. They prayed impassioned prayers. Sweat ran down their brows. "Jesus," they said in breathy voices, "please deliver your daughter Jessica from these demons of feminism!"
Demons of feminism.
Oh dear. Watch out for those, now. Those are the worst kind! Once you get those demons of feminism in they're impossible to get out!
When I was five I attended a private Christian school where we sat in cubicles and worked independently because good Americans--er--good Christians create community this way I guess. Recess was granted to those who memorized an entire psalm because play is frivolous and protestant work ethic. I remember one day a high school girl came in with a cute bob because 80s fashion and she left with tears running down her cheeks after she was paddled for cutting her hair above her chin. Because only boys can have short hair. Because Jesus had... wait a second.
Growing up I heard all the arguments: women shouldn't teach a man, or preach because Paul said men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders. Woman would contaminate the sacraments with her moon cycle. Early on I learned there was something different about being a woman. She wasn't equal to a man. She was dirty. She tempted men to stray. A woman's curiosity brought sin into the world and only a sexless virgin could help redeem it. And we should all look to a male savior who would come on a white horse (with our missing glass shoe?) and make everything right-- oh our poor husbands.
In my women's studies classes I began to learn how many of the world's religions have also struggled to value men and women equally. I began to wonder if I could be a strong woman and also be spiritual, or if I wanted to be a Christian was I choosing a small cage for my gender? For many years--as I was unaware of another way-- I placed all my hope of salvation upon authoritative men in my life; they all looked a little bit too much like Jesus to me.
Can a woman be a savioress? Yes. Yes she can. As a single mother raising three children--she must learn to be.
Tara is a female goddess of compassion in Buddhism, a savioress and companion to humans on the journey to enlightenment.
Wait. There are goddesses? TONS of goddesses. I remember when I learned this. I remember how my stomach lurched. It just felt so weird. So different. So overwhelming. So potentially witchy. So possibly evil. Where did this instinct come from? Why did I fear the Goddess whom I did not know?
If it wasn't for my family lineage of Lutheran ministers and a mystical experience I had when I was a child, I might have closed the door on religion in college. I began my preaching career at age five, after divine love descended upon me one day and melted my heart. I thought: this is it. If everyone could just feel this love, just have one taste, it would solve so many problems in the world if people knew how beloved they were! I first proselytized the passengers on the short bus that drove me to my strict Christian school. There were some cute high school boys who sat in the back and one day I overheard them say that they didn't believe in God. I stood up. Threw down my backpack and literally screamed, "What?!! How can you NOT believe in God?!! God is EVERYWHERE. God is in the trees and in the grass and all around us! Can't you feel it???" I thought at first God's amazing love had stunned them into complete wonder. Until everyone started cracking up. And then my heart broke because I had a total crush on the boy who started laughing first.
The next group I shared the good news with was my girl scout troop. It was one of those special overnight events where we had to walk across a bridge where we were transformed from little daisies into real life brownies. It was the perfect opportunity. And after dessert (Were we eating girl scout cookies? Yes. Yes we were.) I began to pour my heart out. I told them all about this amazing divine love, about heaven and Jesus and God and the trees, and the grass and the air. Cookie crumb covered mouths hung wide open in wonder. I had successfully delivered the message. And just as I had done it, the girl scout troop leader barreled over to me with those angry eyebrows that can stop a heartbeat. "Don't you ever talk about that stuff here again! Understand?"
Yes, I began to understand shame. Shame started growing right along side of this wondrous experience of divine love. I began to understand silence. And fear. I began to feel uncomfortable with the little mystic girl who wanted to pray and sing while she vacuumed her bedroom, climbed trees and communed with God while catching frogs. In the summer between my 7th and 8th grade year I had the chance to reinvent myself--I had a shot at being cool--when the military gave my father orders to a new town. I got contacts and hormones all at once. And like many women, I stumbled my way through the passage from girlhood to womanhood with few guides, I experienced sexual assaults and endured too many years of shamed silence. My heart grew as hard as my Aquanet anointed hair. It took me many years to reach out to that geeky mystical girl, to wipe the shame away and say, "Oh little girl, I am so sorry. I need you. Please come home."
Being a whole woman means all of our girls our welcome.
All are valuable.
All of the parts of me.
All of the parts of you.
I started practicing yoga when I was in seminary over fifteen years ago with a VHS tape of Rodney Yee in Speedos because he was in Speedos. I had started to feel like a walking MTV head dragging my anxious and depression prone body around through life. I truly sucked at yoga--trust me--I was a mess on my mat, my toes were light years away, and I frequently told Rodney he was nuts and made fun of his too-peaceful-to-actually-be-taken-seriously demeanor. (Sorry Rodney. Please forgive me.) But something started to change. I would get up from the last pose, savasana, (the one where you just lay there and be) and the world had changed. Suddenly my problems were not big scary monsters anymore. No--I had changed.
As I began to heal my body, it began to send me messages that it needed some serious detoxing. The first came in the form of frightening night terrors. When we begin to heal, sometimes the wound needs to ooze first. Night after night I awoke screaming. In my dreams I was being chased and chopped up and violated over and over again. In my dreams I felt I could do nothing to protect myself. I found a Jungian analyst to work with, a person who understood dreams as holding symbols necessary for our healing. He began to ask me about my childhood. He asked me about 8th grade. And I thought the whole world was going to come to an end. And it was, because I had stayed silent for over fourteen years and I was about to speak. I was about to open the forbidden door and reveal the chopped up young woman inside.
Once I spoke the dreams began to change. Now the scary people chasing me wore the face of my abuser. One night I had enough and I pushed him off of me and I said in a loud voice, "You don't ever get to treat me like this ever again." And the nightmares stopped. Somewhere along the way I had confused being a spiritual woman with being a doormat. In order to shift that energy I had to tap into the forbidden feminine energy of anger--a holy anger--not an evil anger--not to just be an angry woman--but to learn how to create safe boundaries and to value that which was most vulnerable within myself. I had to learn how to integrate the energy of the wounded little girl that I had wanted to forget about and throw away and abandon forever in order to survive in a sometimes harsh and violent world. It was at this point in my life where the powerful male images of God that once brought me comfort offered little help to me. God died. And I had to wait for a resurrection. Jesus and the theology of the cross started to make more sense to me now. But the deeper I dug into it, I realized that the ancient story of resurrection first belonged to the Goddess.
There are different kinds of energy and wisdom. Like the Yin and the Yang. There is the kind of wisdom that can put a satellite into orbit around Pluto. You have a destination. You follow the steps, you do the math and you reach your destination. Then there is the wisdom of the body. This kind of wisdom moves down, through the layers of flesh, of history, of dirt, of blood, of bone into ash. The destination is unknown new life. You must be faithful to the mystery of the process. This kind of wisdom moves deep into feeling. All of the feeling. It goes all the way down into the body of suffering which is human history. Attempting to deny our human suffering is dangerous. In psychology it is called disassociating, or a fragmenting of the self where one part is completely disconnected from the other, one hand knows not what the other does. It seems that sometimes we secretly admire this ability to appear so cut off from our vulnerability, as if this denial reveals strength and not a defense against feeling, as if being walled off from our humanity is a good thing. And we raise up leaders who mirror this false sense of strength. And we substitute violence for the power of love.
Many of us are terrified by our vulnerabilities. We are scared of identifying with something small and weak. Men are especially encouraged to split this aspect off from themselves, and we encourage them to do so as long as we keep needing them to save us! Our spiritual traditions remind us that this is where the gold is found. The tiny seed becomes the Kingdom of God. The child leads the way. Being vulnerable is the only way we can open ourselves up to true love. I call this tiny seed like energy, Maiden energy. It's the wide eyed wonder of a curious young child. And as long we stay connected to this energy, we don't grow calloused when we grow up, we grow in wisdom, playful joy and deep intimate love.
Erasmus, one of the early church fathers venerated reason over emotions. The ideal man throughout much of history, has been described as one who is unmoved and rational above all. But in the Romantic period a resurgence of valuing emotion over reason arose. People recognized that great art required great emotion. Emotions could also make people irrational, which gave them more power than reason. When the industrial revolution came about, machines began to shape our identity and modern societies once again valued suppressing the emotions and compartmentalizing our parts in order to be a functioning cog in a machine. The private and public life became more fractured.
When we can strike a balance between reason and emotion, between the yin and the yang, male and female, in all of our lives, we will find the wholeness and healing we are seeking. Holding the tension of opposites is a practice. Carl Jung believed it was this work that brought about the birth of something new, even the Self. This is the work of incarnation. Of bringing Spirit fully into the body.
I think when people fear a powerful women what they really fear is an ANGRY WOMAN. Everyone seems to be pretty scared of an angry woman. Why? Because she's a fucking force to behold! Images like the Hindu Goddess Kali who wields knives and chops off men's heads and wears their bones for jewelry (fucking awesome) and the snake haired stair-you-to-stone Medusa come to mind. Definitely demon possessed, right?
I just recently learned the back story to the Medusa myth. Did you know that she was once a priestess in the Goddess Athena's temple? (This is pre-snake hair.) And that Poseidon, God of the Sea broke into the temple and raped her there? When Athena found out what happened to her priestess, she GIFTED Medusa with the snake hair and stone stair so that she would always be protected from any predators unwanted advances. When you begin to know the back story of the demon, you find the wounded child. You see that what you mistook for evil is actually a big boundary of protection--as thick as three inch 90s hair. In fact sacred sites around the world have long been protected by scary faced figures like those found in totem poles and gargoyles. What is needed is not to cast out the demon and separate ourselves from our suffering, but to begin to heal the wounded child that the demon is protecting. When Medusa's mad head is reconnected to her pain body healing can occur. We need to stop demonizing the powerful feminine and start understanding her ancient symbols. Snakes are symbols of healing; consider how the medical symbol of the caduceus has two snakes wrapped around it. The oldest goddess statues that have been found reveal a large woman holding two snakes in her hands. The snake goddess is a symbol of healing power. The snake is the creature who has a body most connected to the earth.
In Buddhism demons are not cast out. There is a practice of becoming mindful of them. Of extending hospitality to that which is strange and frightening. Much like Jesus' wide invitation to the heavenly banquet--even the outcasts are welcome.
I've recently started a meditation practice called Tonglen which invites us to sit with our most uncomfortable aspects. To inhale the suffering, to imagine it dissolving within us (or within the light of which we are made) and exhaling out healing. In this way we are not putting our demons on other people or casting our shadows darkly upon the world. Instead we are practicing courage to look our shame right in the eye. To reach out and wrap our arms around this grotesque thing that we'd much rather discard. To feed it even, until it heals and reintegrates within our being and gifts us with new energy, so that we are whole people. So that our souls have depths. So that we live the mystery of resurrection. And that our lives are authentic and truly powerful.
Innana is one of the most famous ancient goddesses from Mesopotamia. Like 4000 B.C.E. old. Many of the other goddess stories are variants of this myth. In many of the goddess stories, the sacred feminine descends into the underworld to face pain and recover something that has been lost. A death occurs here and by some miracle, also a resurrection. This is the old way of lady wisdom. She descends. Dies. And rises again. Resurrection is about the wisdom of the feminine way. It's what happens in our bodies every month. It's not a straight calculated shot to Pluto. We won't know exactly what or when new life will emerge. But we can trust it will be divine.
Feminine power is often misunderstood ancient mother bear energy. The mother goddess is powerful at protecting what is most vulnerable, in herself and in life. It is this energy that contains the power to help us rise up and face down any system of fear that keeps us living too small lives. It dissolves the old ideas that our heads should be disconnected from our feelings and our bodies. This energy knows that when we pollute the earth we pollute our bodies. It can empower us to recreate a world that doesn't make money off of people's continued suffering. This energy says NO MORE taking advantage of our most vulnerable citizens. This energy fuels us to create communities that thrive on mutual wellness. This is the energy of the Queen, the inner priestess who serves and protects our sacred bodies and our sacred earth. This energy knows the power of a seed and has the gift to keep it safe until it is ready to bloom.
Because we are the savioresses that we have been waiting for.
A closing blessing.
May you find the courage to descend into your sacred body.
May you find the strength to face whatever Medusas you find protecting your vulnerability.
May you know that the fire is for transformation.
That the ashes are only temporary.
That the chaos is for creativity.
That resurrections happen everyday.
May you rise in grace and power and shine your brightest light.
The powerful woman in me salutes the powerful woman in you.